Biography of Rita Levi Montalcini, Italian neurologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1986. She shared this award with Stanley Cohen, as both discovered the first known growth factor in the nervous system.
Thanks to the two of them, the control mechanisms that regulate the growth of cells are now known.
The early years of Rita Levi Montalcini
Rita Levi Montalcini was born in Turin on April 22, 1909.
Her father, Adamo Levi, of Sephardic origin, was gifted with great talent for mathematics and was an electrical engineer.
Her mother, Adele Montalcini, was a successful painter.
Rita and her twin sister Paola were the two youngest of four brothers. Paola was a well-known plastic artist. The older sister, Anna, had a great fondness for writing.
The male brother, Gino, studied architecture and was one of the best-known Italian architects. He died of a heart attack in 1974, when he was a professor at the University of Turin.
Later being already famous, Rita Levi always had words of praise for her parents, remembering that she grew up in a family environment full of love, in which culture was valued and intellectual efforts were appreciated.
However, Adamo Levi had a very traditional mindset when it came to raising his daughters. He did not want them to pursue a profession that would separate them from their future duties as mothers and wives.
In 1928, when Rita was 19, her former nanny and family friend died of cancer. This made Rita decide to study medicine despite anticipating her father’s firm opposition.
Meanwhile, to pay for her studies, Rita Levi worked in a bakery.
After much insistence, she finally had the support of Adamo Levi, in 1930. To have access to the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Turin, she had to be examined for free in Latin, Greek and mathematics.
At university, Rita Levi became friends with Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco.
Years later and before her, these two colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Physiology.
All three were students of the famous histologist Giuseppe Levi, from whom they learned the rigor with which scientific questions must be approached.
Rita Levi graduated in 1936 with the highest qualification, Summa Cum Laude, and began specialty studies in neurology and psychiatry.
Finally, she obtained a medical degree and a neurosurgery doctorate.
At the time, she still doubted whether to practice as a doctor or to pursue research. In any case, she stayed at the University of Turin as an assistant to Professor Giuseppe Levi.
Rita Levi’s difficulties during the Mussolini regime
In 1938, in Italy “The Manifesto of the Race” was published, in which Mussolini prohibited Jews from pursuing an academic career and accessing research positions.
Since Rita came, through the paternal branch, from a Sephardic Jewish family, she had to leave the University of Turin. She moved to Belgium and worked as a visiting researcher at a neurobiological institute in Brussels.
In 1940, anticipating the eminent invasion of Belgium by the Germans, Rita Levi preferred to return to Turin and face the situation with her family.
She installed a small biology laboratory in her bedroom. That was her first genetic laboratory.
A published article about the effects of limb removal on chicken embryos had inspired her to study the growth of nerve fibers in these animals.
Her work in these precarious conditions was the basis of much of her later research.
During the war, she was in contact with partisans and considered enlisting with them and fighting at the front. She did not, because she did not want to endanger her family.
In exchange, she contributed to the cause by falsifying documents, and helping as a nurse and volunteer doctor at the Anglo-American headquarters to which the refugees were brought.
In Turin in September 1943 the persecution of the Jews was unrelenting. Rita Levi and her entire family received help from non-Jewish friends and managed to flee to a town south of Florence.
There they were able to survive by remaining hidden until the end of the war.
Rita Levi after World War II
After the war, in 1945 Rita Levi was able to return to Turin and her work at the University.
In September 1946, the celebrated professor Viktor Hamburger offered her a research associate position at the University of Washington in St. Louis, for a semester.
Viktor Hamburger had had to flee the Nazi regime in 1935. He had focused on experimental embryology research and the development of the nervous system in animals.
Rita Levi, gladly accepted the opportunity to work under the supervision of Viktor Hamburger. She started in 1947 and, instead of a semester, she stayed 30 years.
Rita Levi at the University of Washington
There, at the American university, Rita Levi discovered the protein that nerve cells release and that causes the growth of the ramifications of neighboring neurons.
How did Rita Levi arrive at this fundamental discovery? She focused on a puzzling phenomenon: a type of mouse tumor that, when transplanted into the chicken embryo, caused drastic growth of nerve fibers related to the transmission of sensory impulses.
Rita Levi and her co-worker (Stanley Cohen) observed that such nerve growth did not require direct contact with the tumor. Rita then deduced that the tumor released into the environment something that, by itself, was able to stimulate the development of certain nerves.
She called that factor released by the tumor nerve growth factor (NGF).
Her intuition turned out to be correct, and NGF was produced shortly thereafter in that same lab. Acronyms ending in GF (growth factor) are now found in any biology book.
This is how in 1952, Rita Levi Montalcini, together with Stanley Cohen, achieved her most relevant result: isolating the “nerve growth factor” (NGF), a substance that stimulates the growth of nerves.
A few years later, in 1958, Rita Levi was appointed professor at the University of Washington.
Rita Levi’s personal life
Rita Levi never married or had children. She was beautiful and sympathetic, but until the mid-20th century women were forced to prioritize their husbands’ careers.
In those years it was very difficult for women to maintain the balance between a professional career and their lives as mothers and wives.
She chose the option of being a full-time professional.
It was only towards the end of the 20th century that women like Margaret Thatcher were able to count on the strong support of their husbands and excel in their professions.
Rita Levi never hesitated to prioritize her dedication to science and research. Her life was enriched, she helped as much as she could in the training of young researchers, she always maintained excellent human relationships. She never felt alone.
Just as she had been able to cope with the rigors of fascist cruelty suffered as a person of Jewish descent; to the problems of practicing clandestine medicine in times of war; She also had the courage to face the difficulties posed by prejudice and discrimination towards women who worked at the forefront of science.
Rita Levi Montalcini after 1958
After a few years, in 1962, Rita Levi was commissioned to establish a research unit similar to that of Washington in Rome. Since then she divided her time between Rome and Saint Louis.
In the following years she combined her work in St. Louis, being a professor, with other works in Italy; launched and presided over several laboratories and research centers in Rome.
From 1961 to 1969 she directed the Center for Neurobiological Research in Rome, which she transformed into the European Brain Research Institute, of great worldwide prestige.
Rita Levi directed the Laboratory of Cell Biology, in Italy, from 1969 to 1978.
Her most emblematic award was the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with which she was awarded in 1986, but she received many other honors, both scientific and related to human values; some fees, many others due to their merits.
On April 20, 2005, two days before her 96th birthday, she opened the headquarters of the new European Institute of Neuroscience in Rome, where she lived.
Rita Levi is the author of numerous books, and the most recent, such as “Time for Action”, focus on the digital revolution and the need to change education.
On April 22, 2009, she became the first person to be awarded a Nobel Prize for reaching 100 years of age.
Her eyesight was already poor and she needed her secretary to use the Internet, one of her favorite tools, but she retained vitality, irony and lucidity.
She used to say to her relatives: “When I can no longer think, I want them to help me die with dignity“.
On that occasion, Rita Levi told reporters: “At one hundred years old, I have a mind that is superior to what I had at 20, thanks to experience“.
Death of Rita Levi Montalcini
On December 30, 2012, the day of her death in Rome at age 103, the media from around the world emphasized her scientific work and her efforts to contribute to the training of young women.
Awards and honors awarded to Rita Levi
- 1968: she was the tenth woman chosen as a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences.
- 1983: Together with Stanley Cohen and Viktor Hamburger, she received the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize in Biology and Biochemistry from Columbia University.
- 1986: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Stanley Cohen.
- 1987: National Medal of Science, highest recognition of the American scientific community.
- 1999: Appointed FAO Goodwill Ambassador, after creating a foundation dedicated to helping African women and girls study.
- 2000: appointed senator for life by the President of the Italian Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.
- 2005: inaugurated in Rome the headquarters of the European Institute of Neuroscience.
- 2006: She was awarded an honorary doctorate in biomedical engineering at the Polytechnic of Turin, in her hometown.
- 2008: She received the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from the Complutense University of Madrid.
- 2011: She was vested with an “honoris causa” doctor by McGill University.